As a passionate advocate of pastured poultry, I have a companion protocol for people who don’t have a yard or pasture big enough to accommodate portable shelters. The answer is deep bedding.
In general, in a pastured situation, laying hens need a couple of square feet per day of fresh ground. Not dirt, but fresh ground. Many people do not have enough area to offer that. Some people rightfully start down this path and then find family resistance when playing in the backyard means tracking chicken droppings into the house. After all, if you have 5 chickens using 15 square feet per day with a minimal 30-day rest period before returning to the same spot, that’s 450 square feet.
Furthermore, in many urban settings predatory domestic dogs are a much bigger problem than even foxes, coyotes and bears in rural settings. Not only do many dogs exist, but proximity to neighbors makes controlling and negotiating a more touchy situation.
For a lot of reasons, then, urban folks would not want to pasture their poultry. Here is a simple, chicken friendly, hygienic solution: deep bedding. This is a take off from the compost pile. Almost anybody knows that a minimal compost pile is about 3 feet cubed–3 feet in all directions. If it’s any smaller, it’s not big enough to create a viable internal community of bacteria and fungi to maintain heat and decomposition.
A functioning compost pile needs carbon, nitrogen, moisture, air, and microbes. It also needs enough mass to support an internal core community of microbial beings who can build roads, schools, colleges, homes, and hatcheries. Not really, but you get the idea.
Nature sanitizes two ways: rest and sunshine or vibrant decomposition. The pastured poultry model that I espouse uses the first method: rest and sunshine. But in the winter when we have a couple of feet of snow, or in the brooder house, at our farm we utilize the other option: deep bedding.
The concept is quite simple. You need enough mass to support microbes, and that is minimally 8 inches, but preferably more than 12 inches deep. The microbes will not live right out on the edges, so take away a couple of inches in habitation. They need enough space to build their communities–a minimum 4 inches. That leaves us at 8 inches. Anything deeper is better and more functional.
A great option for people with extremely limited space, then, is to build a coop designed for deep bedding. I’ve seen many backyard coop designs and precious few are built for deep bedding. All you need is some sort of containment–chicken wire, heavy mesh, boards, sheet metal–that matches the footprint of your coop. Make this base at least 24 inches high. Offer at least 5 square feet per bird– 5 birds could be put in a coop 5 ft. X 5 ft. = 25 square feet. That’s not much room and doable for thousands of urban settings.
For efficient and functional use, I would make the coop detachable from the base. That way when you finally do need to clean out the base, you can get a couple of friends to come over and help you set off the coop to expose the compost beneath. The compost, of course, is far more valuable than raw chicken manure and smells like moldy leaves.
Let’s go through the mechanics quickly. You’ll start with an 8 inch base of carbon: sawdust, leaves, wood chips, peanut hulls, bark mulch. Put the chickens in the little structure and watch them begin aggressively scratching and churning the carbon. This aerates it. You can add kitchen scraps in a pan and whatever they don’t eat, like banana peels or orange peels, will be scratched into the bedding. From time to time, add some more carbon. Gradually life will come into the bedding and you’ll see worms, rolly pollies and all sorts of critters. That’s just what you can see–the chickens will see far more.
These critters will supplement the birds’ diet in protein. If the bedding gets a bit smelly or funky, add some more carbon. Don’t use straw or hay unless you shred it or unless you add just a little bit at a time. The long strands tend to mat and the birds have trouble incorporating it into the litter.
The compost provides warmth in cold times. During warmer temperatures, be sure to provide lots of ventilation in the coop. A removable wall would be great. You may need to add a little water to the bedding if it gets too dry, but normally the birds will waste enough water from their drinker to provide enough moisture. No need to put in a floor–let the bedding be right on the ground.
As the bedding takes on life, it builds slower and slower. You will be amazed at how slowly the bedding builds once it passes 12 inches in depth. The decomposition consumes bulky material. Clean out may be as seldom as once every two years compared to routine clean out if you’re using the typical skiff of fresh shavings. That material must be cleaned out every couple of days to eliminate odors and pathogenicity.
The deep bedding controls pathogens because nematodes attack disease-causing bugs. In a good environment like this, nature provides far more good guys than bad guys. The deep bedding allows that self-policing (libertarian) community to function vibrantly, providing a sanitary, healthful environment for the poultry.
As an additional plus, it’s far easier to build a Fort Knox coop when it’s stationary than when it needs to be light enough to be portable. You won’t be stressing about weight if you don’t have to move it every day. You also won’t be stressing about moving it every day. This is far more conducive to flexible schedules and predator proofing. Go ahead and use heavy lumber, heavy wire, and big staples. If the coop weighs 1,000 pounds, fine. All you’ll need are a few extra friends to set it off come cleaning time. You can even
mount handles around the sides to let more people get a grasp. Include a potluck and music to turn this once-in-a-blue-moon chore into a bona fide shindig.
Deep litter offers a great use for fall-dropped leaves. Just bag them up and keep them dry and you can use them throughout the year. Overall, you’ll find that the chickens thrive on this living bedding, it takes far less daily maintenance than shallow systems, and it’s far more interesting to watch. That’s half the fun of kitchen-chickens–watching them express their chickenness. Now go ahead and get started.